Tag: Afro-Descendant Communities

Podcast: COVID-19, Communities, and Human Rights in Colombia

As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.

This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”

In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities, Podcast, Public Health

April 11, 2020

COVID-19 and Human Rights in Colombia

By Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, cross-posted from wola.org.

Colombia, along with the rest of the world, is dealing with the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Similar to governments across the globe, it is adapting the best it can to this unprecedented public health threat. As of April 9, 69 Colombians have died, and another 2,223 are infected with the virus that has spread across 23 departments. In this update, we include information received from our partners with their view on how the pandemic is affecting their communities, along with concerning reports of on-going killings, attacks, and threats against social leaders; armed conflict; insecurity; and other abuses. Sadly, despite the national quarantine in Colombia, killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted.

We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings. Additional measures must be put in place to protect the health of these already marginalized communities. For this to be effective, consultation, coordination, and implementation are required with ethnic leaders in both rural and urban settings. On March 30, the Ethnic Commission sent President Duque a letter with medium and long-term requests to best help ethnic communities. In sum, they ask the government to coordinate with them; guarantee food supplies, seeds, and inputs for planting their crops; and to strengthen their organizations so they can sustain their national and regional team that attends daily to the situation of the peoples in the territories. At present, the National Organization for Indigenous Peoples (ONIC) has developed a national system of territorial monitoring of the COVID-19 virus in indigenous territories. They have organized territorial controls with indigenous guards to limit contagion in indigenous areas. AFRODES has circulated guidelines for displaced Afro-Colombians in urban settings. 

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities, Public Health, WOLA Statements

April 10, 2020

COVID-19 Ceasefire Now: Letter to Armed Actors from Over 100 Organizations

From the open letter at the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace website.

Over 100 ethnic and rural organizations are calling for a two-week ceasefire in Colombia’s most conflict-ridden areas. They are asking for a cessation of hostilities to be added to measures taken by the Colombian government to curb the spread of COVID-19.

With support from the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, the signatories sent separate letters to the national government, the ELN, the FARC dissident groups, and the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group. The communities are asking all to call an immediate halt to offensive actions until April 1, with a possible extension to May 30.

The signatories are overwhelmingly from the conflict-hit departments of Cauca, Chocó, Meta, Putumayo, and Valle del Cauca. Many communities have self-protection measures in place, like the Indigenous Guard, to peacefully work to defend their territories. Colombia must listen to vulnerable communities and meet their demands at this time.

Here is the English text of the letter that went to Colombian President Iván Duque. The letters to the illegal armed groups are closely similar.

Cessation of armed operations by COVID-19 to President Iván Duque Márquez

Our communities live in territories where violence persists in various forms.

We call upon you, combatants of all forces, to protect your own lives and the lives of we, the civilians, in our territories.

We call on you as the main commander of the Armed Forces and National Police to protect the lives of the official combatants and the lives of civilians in our territories with a cessation of hostilities. We make this call on all armed groups operating in our regions based on the WHO declaration of the pandemic called COVID–19, which is already causing irreparable loss of human life.

In particular, we propose:

  1. Inform all personnel of the COVID–19 pandemic and the consequences for their lives and those of those who are in contact with them.
  2. Train them in preventive mechanisms.
  3. Only act in case of attacks and non-compliance by opponents of this proposal, which is implicit in the Global Humanitarian Agreement by the Pandemic.
    This request is also made explicitly to the Armed Forces and Police, security agencies, and eradicators. we have reports of the virus infection in armed forces personnel of the United States.
  4. Remove your personnel from our environments or communities and place them at distances that prevent the virus from spreading.
  5. Refrain from convening any kind of mandatory meeting.

Our communities in some regions are experiencing droughts, other regions are affected by heavy rains. Their lives and our lives are precious. The armed strategies, for reasons of humanity—of all humanity—must stop for at least two weeks, until 1 April, starting tomorrow with a possible extension until at least 30 May.

The pandemic has very severe social, environmental and economic effects that are calling us to take the path of a different society. Today no one is exempt from dying from this virus, not even the most powerful in weapons and wealth.

Let’s take advantage of COVID–19 to think about the life of each one of you, in the life of each of us, in the life of the country. Assume the reflection among your crews, fronts, brigades, battalions, commanders. Nothing remains of our arrogance, nor of our vain pride. It is the time of solidarity, and from it peace in a new democracy.

We invite you to listen to our request for a partial cessation of hostilities.

Life is teaching us. It is a time for everyone. The isolation experienced by the citizenry in the country must lead us, perhaps, to reflect on the confinement and lack of food for years that we have lived in the regions.

We need a social, environmental and legal state that consolidates a transversal and integral peace. With this crisis, the importance of an inclusive country without corruption, in cooperation with all of humanity, in which you can contribute, will be recognized.

Let’s start now!

Signatory organizations:

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Civil Society Peace Movement, Indigenous Communities, Public Health

March 20, 2020

March 4, 2020

  • Assailants in Cali kill Arley Hernán Chalá, a bodyguard of prominent Chocó social leader Leyner Palacios, who is not with him at the time. Chalá is shot 18 times outside his home. “This must have been a message for me and for our process,” says Palacios, a survivor of the 2002 Bojayá massacre who was forced to leave Chocó in February after receiving threats. The threats continued even after Palacios met with President Duque and foreign ambassadors in January.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Attacks on social leaders, Valle del Cauca

March 4, 2020

January 11, 2020

  • Visiting Bojayá, Chocó, President Duque promises to increase military presence and social investment in the battered municipality.
  • That day, Bojayá social leader Leyner Palacios, who had met with President Duque three days before, receives a truculent letter from the commander of the Titan Joint Task Force, a Chocó-based military unit. Palacios had denounced episodes of collusion between members of the security forces and Gulf Clan paramilitaries. In what he calls a “freedom of information request,” Commander Darío Fernando Cardona Castrillón asks Palacios to provide “names or surnames of the security-force members, and the place and date during which such illegal acts were committed, so that respective investigations may be initiated.”

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Armed Groups, Army, Chocó, Civil-Military Relations, Gulf Clan, Military and Human Rights, Stabilization

January 11, 2020

January 8, 2020

  • Amid reports of 23 homicides of social leaders in December, a large-scale “Gulf Clan” paramilitary incursion in Bojayá, Chocó, and the murder of human rights defender Gloria Ocampo in Putumayo, the Presidency convenes a rare meeting of the National Security Guarantees Commission that was established by the peace accord.
  • Bojayá social leader Leyner Palacios, who denounced serious recent threats on his life, is invited to join the Commission’s meeting. Palacios is known nationally as a survivor of the 2002 FARC indiscriminate bombing that destroyed the village’s church, killing 79 people—including 5 of Palacios’s relatives—seeking refuge inside.
  • High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos voices doubt that 300 Gulf Clan members could be deployed all at once in Bojayá, as local groups have denounced.
Photo source: David Romo, Colombian Presidency
Photo source: David Romo, Colombian Presidency

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Armed Groups, Attacks on social leaders, Gulf Clan, High Commissioner for Peace, National Security Guarantees Commission

January 8, 2020

Civil Society Faces Deadly Threats in Colombia’s Chocó Region

When nearly 7,000 combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) disarmed and abandoned their strongholds in remote areas of Colombia, the Colombian government saw the opportunity to secure and establish themselves in communities that had not seen the rule of law in over half a century. The people of Chocó—Colombia’s most under-resourced region, with 45.1 percent of its population living under multidimensional poverty—were expectant. 

For the past four years, Chocóan civil society had undergone a transformation. Negotiations with the FARC in 2012 reduced combat operations and violence in the region, enabling leaders to organize and develop their activities with less fear of harm. This is important because during the 1990s-2000s, the civic space for these groups was decimated by violence and pressure exerted by illegal armed groups. 

During the peace accord negotiations, ethnic leaders were forced to mobilize at the national level and advocate internationally so that the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people were integrated into the accord. In a historic effort, Afro-Colombian and indigenous grassroots organizations united to form the Ethnic Commission for Peace. On August 2015, they negotiated the historic inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter in the peace accords. This chapter recognizes that Colombia’s ethnic minorities were disproportionately victimized by the internal armed conflict, and remedies this by guaranteeing that peace is implemented in a differentiated manner that respects their rights. Concurrently, a united front of women and LGBTQ+ organizations mobilized and established the Gender Sub-commission at the Havana negotiating table in 2014, leading to an integration of women and gender rights into the accord. 

As envisioned in the first point of the peace accord, the 16 most war-stricken regions around the country would build Development Plans with Territorial Focus (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDETs), which would define the communities’ needs over the next 10 years of peace implementation. The ultimate goal of these development plans is to breach the socio-economic inequalities that have plagued these regions with violence. In the case of Chocó, more than 300 leaders worked to weave the Ethnic Chapter’s differential approach into their own Ethnic Territorial Development Plan.

As a longtime partner of these strengthened organizations, WOLA was part of a humanitarian observation mission to Chocó from July 2-5, 2019. Explored in more detail in an upcoming report, what we saw was bleak: about 11,300 people unable to move freely in the territory, 7,000 of which are indigenous people, more than 2,000 displaced, mostly indigenous, and a strategic dismantling of local civil society and closure of civic space by armed actors.

“After the signing of the peace accords in 2016, we had eight months of peace and quiet,” said a representative of the Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum of Chocó. “Then the paramilitaries came back, then the ELN.

Although the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerillas and the paramilitary Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) were always present in Chocó, the FARC controlled the majority of the territory with little contestation. After their disarmament, the Colombian government  saw these territories claimed by a fast advancing ELN who clashed with the AGC amongst the population. The ELN grew from 90 fighters limited to a few municipalities in the south of the region, to over 400 men in 75 percent of Chocó, all in less than two years. Within an eight-month period, communities saw themselves confined to their houses, unable to organize, fish, farm, or even escape as their territory had been littered with anti-personnel mines and sporadic firefights. 

Nevertheless, 87 civil society organizations of all stripes met to draft theChoco Now! Humanitarian Agreement proposed on September 2018 to the ELN and Colombian government negotiating in Havana. One of the organizations that led this grassroots proposal was the Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum of Chocó (Foro Interétnico Solidaridad Chocó). A perfect example of how Chocóan civil society remains dynamic and integrative, it is conformed by 78 organizations and community councils, both Afro-Colombian and indigenous, from all of Chocó. 

The Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum establishes a united front, representing extremely diverse and marginalized communities. Institutional and civic spaces of their own creation gave way to communication networks amongst isolated communities that now quickly alert local and international civil society the moment any violation occurs, instead of having to endure victimization in silence. Social media and linkage with international organizations means Chocó’s ethnic communities can report and mobilize like never before. 

Unfortunately, a July 17, 2019 ELN terrorist attack on a police academy that left 21 casualties and 70 injured prompted President Ivan Duque to end negotiations with the ELN and order the immediate capture of the guerilla high command, who were negotiating in Cuba at the time. Since then, the unrestrained fighting between the government and illegal armed groups over territorial control and illicit economies has drastically deepened the humanitarian crisis in Chocó.

Chocó’s natural resource richness, inaccessibility, and connection to both oceans make it prime real estate of strategic geographical value for armed groups. The second largest producer of gold in the country, it is estimated 60 percent of Chocó’s gold leaves the Colombia illegally. By some estimates, this makes illegal gold exploitation more profitable than cocaine in Colombia’s Pacific region. An increase of coca crops, alongside the usage of  Chocó’s coasts as shipping points, have armed actors fighting viciously over control of the department. 

Armed groups have subjugated communities in places of strategic value for decades, placing them under complete social control. Nevertheless, a period of FARC hegemony over the region allowed some traditional authorities to retain their positions of leadership. Indeed, some leaders were able to negotiate effectively with the guerilla high command if FARC fighters overstepped boundaries with the community. 

Now that the FARC has left Chocó, and the State has failed to establish control, armed actors seek to subjugate these populations once again.

The difference is that the multiplicity of armed actors, the long periods of active fighting, and the lack of clear territorial boundaries makes the approach of these armed groups more vicious and in no way conciliatory, leaving little space for these newfound, highly vulnerable civil society organizations to exercise their leadership..

Since local government is corrupted, infiltrated by illegal armed groups, and incapable of controlling the territory, Chocó’s civil society is the population’s first and only line of defense against renewed victimization. Likewise, Chocó’s civil society is the only thing standing in the way of control of these widely profitable and vulnerable areas by illegal armed groups. 

However, armed groups are pursuing a strategy of confining and eroding civil society, by restricting the freedom of movement that would allow groups to meet, issuing threats and attacks against social leaders (in many cases forcing them to leave the region), and even infiltrating these same organizations and compromising their legitimacy. All of these serves to disempower the capacity of Chocó’s civil society to lobby and organize among themselves. 

There are other abhorrent effects of the ongoing conflict in Chocó. Both confined and displaced communities cannot engage in cultural practices—a fundamental basis for their resilience— that are deeply rooted in their ties to the land they have inhabited for hundreds of years. Children cannot attend school, increasing their likelihood of recruitment by armed groups and potentially foregoing the passage of ancestral knowledge to a new generation. 

During WOLA’s field trip to the region, multiple sources reported the cohabitation and collaboration of the Colombian army and the paramilitaries, positioned in the Atrato River just a few miles ahead of each other.

One particularly sinister practice of the ELN is the recruiting of indigenous teenagers to spy and report on Afro-Colombian communities, and vice versa, to sow mistrust between them. Many asserted that the army would handpick those thought to be ELN sympathizers for the paramilitaries to kill. Usually, individuals are forced to collaborate or be killed, and afterwards they are immediately branded as enemy sympathizers by the competing armed group—helplessly forced between a rock and a hard place.

Colombian ethnic civil society has increasingly become more vibrant and active, as seen when various groups came together to negotiate the historic inclusion of an Ethnic Chapter in the 2016 peace accords, or when ethnic communities organized to formulate transformative development plans for their regions, or when they helped craft a humanitarian accord based on international humanitarian law standards— these are achievements showcasing the momentum and capacity developed by Colombia’s ethnic civil society. Chocó—Colombia’s department with the highest concentration of ethnic populations— serves as an example for the rest of the country in terms of how an active, engaged civil society can bring about positive change. However, old patterns of violence seek to drag Chocóan communities back into a history of subjugation. The Ethnic Chapter, along with the totality of the peace accord, must be fully implemented now more than ever in order to prevent this.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities

August 8, 2019

Afro-Colombian Leader Urges Global Community to Widen its Laser Focus on Venezuela to Prioritize Peace in Colombia

Erlendy Cuero Bravo was honored by Johns Hopkins University on February 18 in a ceremony in Baltimore for her tireless defense of Afro-Colombian human rights despite repeated threats to her life.

While global attention has concentrated on the grave humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, Cuero Bravo focused her Washington D.C. on sounding the alarm about neighboring Colombia’s protracted civil conflict and the fragility of the 2016 peace deal that faces daily threats from the Colombian government.

Cuero Bravo is the vice president of AFRODES, an organization fighting for the rights of Afro-Colombians displaced by armed conflict. AFRODES was founded in 1999 and represents a coalition of 96 organizations with over 90,000 members. Cuero Bravo accepted the Anne Smedinghoff Award and presented her work before Johns Hopkins students and faculty.

“I am originally from a small village in Buenaventura,” she said. “But I fled to Cali after my father was murdered.”

Beginning with the loss of her father, Cuero Bravo has endured a succession of threats and tragedies from her activism. One of AFRODES’s most visible leaders, she represents a default target for armed groups. Though finally granted state protection after a series of bureaucratic delays, she now lives in hiding in a situation she compares to a drug trafficker evading the law.

Armed groups have gone so far as to threaten Cuero-Bravo’s children. “I thought that if I am going to die defending the work I do, that’s one thing, but I will not stand to allow anything to happen to my child,” she said.

Cuero Bravo dismissed many state protection measures as completely ineffective. She described one protection protocol as simply a daily visit from police to see if the social leader is still alive. In another, a social leader is taken to a hotel for five days before moving back to the threatened area.

“The only weapon we have is our words,” she said.

In a separate meeting with WOLA and other human rights organizations, Cuero Bravo detailed disproportionate impact of both poverty and violence on Afro-Colombian women. Threats of physical violence come from criminal gangs, paramilitaries, small-scale drug traffickers, and false accusations from the police that target human rights defenders.

The circumstances of deprivation that displaced Afro-Colombians and others are enduring have recently become obscured by the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

“We want to help our Venezuelan sisters and brothers,” Cuero Bravo said during the event with WOLA. “But it’s hard to see President Duque promising immediate aid to them while we [the displaced population in Colombia] still don’t have access to education, housing, or schools for our children.”

Cuero Bravo expressed her concern that the influx of Venezuelan refugees will present Colombia’s internally displaced population with a competition for resources and exacerbate the unemployment that feeds the country’s cycle of violence.

The high unemployment and economic stress afflicting displaced communities and ethnic minorities creates an environment that enhances the vulnerability for young people to be recruited into illegal trafficking or gang-related groups. Many armed groups focus on recruiting children due to the reduced legal penalties for children under the age of 18.

What worries Cuero Bravo most is the lack of hope she sees in her community’s youth. “The young people see the toll it takes to fight for our rights, and now they don’t want to be social leaders anymore.”

Still, Cuero Bravo pointed to several positive signs of progress in the Afro-Colombian community. Youth programs, like one in Cali that supports 1300 young people with access to education and job training, have the potential to significantly decrease the violence in the region.

“There are so many resources in Colombia,” Cuero Bravo said. “There’s no reason why Colombia shouldn’t be a rich country.”

Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Program Intern

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Human Rights Defenders

April 18, 2019

Unenforced and Unrealized:

Despite Colombia’s progressive gender equity laws, Afro-Colombian women continue to face high rates of gender-based violence

Over two years after Colombia ratified a peace deal celebrated for its focus on gender equity, Afro-Colombian women face an increasing threat of violence without access to justice. According to a report on Colombia’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) released in February, Colombia violates the Convention’s protections for ethnic minorities. The publication anticipates the UN’s 72nd CEDAW conference that is scheduled between February 18 and March 8 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The report is one of the first to be directed by the Afro-Colombian community. The Cali Black Communities Process (PCN) and the Movement for the Diverse Identities of Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquera Women received drafting support from WOLA, MADRE and the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic of the CUNY School of Law. Building on interviews with Afro-Colombian human rights defenders, organizational documents, and news articles, the report details how the gap between Colombia’s laws and their enforcement generates consistent and systemic conditions of violence perpetrated against Afro-Colombian women.

The authors identified six primary threats to Afro-Colombian women’s security. Beginning with a detailed analysis of the failure to implement the peace accord, the report cites threats and attacks on female Afro-Colombian human rights defenders; sexual and gender-based violence; lack of access to justice for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence; lack of access to healthcare for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence; and the violation of Afro-Colombian women’s land rights.

A fractured peace deal compromises Afro-Colombian women’s safety

Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and women’s groups mobilized during peace negotiations and won special provisions in the 2016 deal to address their specific needs and vulnerabilities. Only 54% of the accord’s Ethnic Chapter (Capítulo Étnico) was implemented as of March 2018, while only 51% of the gender provisions have been implemented.

The government’s failure to implement the peace legislation stems from both the national Congress’s lack of political will and the exclusion of Afro-Colombian women’s voices from the agreement’s enforcement mechanisms.

The implementation framework, called Plan Marco, was designed to integrate Afro-Colombian voices into its High Level Body on Gender and the High Level Body for Ethnic Peoples.

Two years later, both bodies are understaffed and underfunded, while the central enforcement authority has attempted to relegate Afro-Colombian women leaders’ input to email correspondence. The Commission on Security Guarantees, a critically important council for safeguarding human rights defenders, only has one female civil society representative.

When Uncertainty Becomes Deadly

One human rights defender is assassinated every three days in Colombia, according to reports compiled by the office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson (Defensoría del Pueblo). This crisis impacts Afro-Colombian women in two forms. The human rights defenders lack access to the protection they are entitled to by the government, while many are prosecuted for their community advocacy.

The alarming spike in assassinations of social leaders since the peace deal is caused by the power vacuum left in former FARC territories and the impunity armed groups enjoy in rural areas. Despite warnings from multiple international and human rights organizations, the government fill the territories the FARC demobilized from with increased security presence. The power vacuum has encouraged armed groups to compete for territory, while human rights defenders bear the costs of advocating for their communities.

Empty Protection Promises

Given Colombia’s long history of armed conflict, the country created the National Protection Unit (UPN) to provide security guarantees for threatened human rights defenders. However, Afro-Colombian women have reported that the protection—when granted after bureaucratic delays—can raise their target profile. After receiving a protection detail, an Afro-Colombian woman felt a multidimensional threat from both her original powerbrokers and her bodyguards.

“I cannot go anywhere without the two, armed, male body guards assigned by the UNP to protect me. It is uncomfortable, I know very little about them and their political agenda, while these men know where I live, and can identify my family. They watch my every move even when I am in my own home. Protection should be given to our entire community, that way I would not need to have individual protective measures and I would feel safer than I do now.”

The Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía) has also criminalized the human rights work of Afro-Colombian women, falsely accusing Sara Liliana Quiñonez Valencia and her mother, Tulia Marys Valencia Quiñonez for supporting the ELN guerrilla. State authorities have imprisoned both women since April 2018 without charges or access to bail, violating several Colombian due process statutes.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: A Multidimensional Problem Requiring Bold Action

The CEDAW report found that Afro-descendant women in Colombia suffer disproportionate rates of sexual violence while perpetrators are given impunity. In one of the most egregious cases, the report cited testimony from human rights defenders that an Afro-Colombian woman was publicly raped in Tumaco—the site of two military bases—while police failed to intervene.

Colombia’s Law 1257 guarantees women the right to live free from all forms of violence. The law also guarantees victims of sexual violence access to justice. While incidences of sexual violence are under-reported, the Victim’s Registry Unit documented 24,576 victims of conflict-related sexual violence in 2017, while only 5 percent of offenders brought to trial were convicted for their crimes. This environment of impunity leaves Afro-descendant women at increased risk of sexual violence as a weapon of conflict.

Land: The Heart of the Problem

Colombia’s decades of armed conflict, though rooted in a variety of factors, mainly stems from extreme disparities in land ownership. Just 1% of Colombians own 81% of the land, while Afro-descendants and ethnic minorities are particularly marginalized when attempting to claim their ancestral land.

Colombia’s Law 70 passed in 1993 granted Afro-descendant communities the right to hold collective land titles. However, state and local officials have created administrative hurdles to disbursing them. As a result, Afro-descendants, who comprise 25% of Colombia’s population, only officially hold 5% of the land titles. Compounding the problem, only 1 of the 18 land restitution provisions of the peace accord has been implemented.

Afro-descendant women in Colombia advocating for human rights recognize that barriers to land ownership are barriers to their communities’ security. Without realizing their freedom from fears of forced displacement, extortion or sexual violence, Afro-Colombian women will continue to face deteriorating living standards and frequent human rights violations.

Recommendations

Observers solely referring to the gender laws already governing Colombia would assume a situation which could not be farther from reality for many Afro-descendant women. The CEDAW report’s essential recommendation to the Colombian government was to implement the pre-established laws while holding those who violate them accountable. The report credited Afro-Colombian women for raising their voices to a government who has chosen to ignore them. Afro-Colombian women and Colombia’s legal mandates understand their needs—all that remains is for the government to bridge the gap between statutes and action.

Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Intern

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities

February 13, 2019

One Year of the JEP: A Special focus on Victims

Marino Córdoba called on the Colombian government to refocus the implementation of its 2016 peace deal on the victims of the country’s 50-year civil war. Córdoba presented his call to action during a Jan. 16 event marking the one-year anniversary of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).

The JEP was established in 2016 as part of a peace deal between the Colombian government and the guerrilla insurgency Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). Representing a compromise between the government and FARC leaders, the JEP implements a transitional justice model.

The agreement tasked the JEP with sanctioning the most grievous crimes committed during the 50-year conflict, while facilitating a sustainable peace by initiating a reconciliation process between victims and perpetrators.

“I was invited to present as a victim in order to represent [the victim’s] perspective of the JEP’s work,” said Córdoba, the founding director of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES). The organization has been an important WOLA partner since and represents a coalition of 96 organizations in a network of 90,000 Afro-Colombians.

Córdoba is a survivor of Operation Genesis, a 1997 forced displacement of Afro-Colombian communities in the Cacarica river basin in Chocó. During the operation, Colombian soldiers collaborated with paramilitary groups to target social leaders and farmer’s unions.

“Before I die, I want to know what happened in Riosucio, and who was responsible for it all,” Córdoba said at the event, documented by W Radio Colombia.

Colombian General Rito Alejo del Río Rojas, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for ordering Operation Genesis, recently agreed to appear before the JEP in exchange for a reduced sentence.

“As victims, we want to know the truth and we want other Colombians to know the truth as well,” Córdoba said, in reference to del Río’s appearance. “The JEP has a great responsibility to document what happened, and we will do our utmost to support the institution.”

Córdoba pushed back against allegations by former president Álvaro Uribe that the JEP is a political tool of the left. “This country is very polarized,” he said. “Right now, we need one voice to ensure that the victims of the conflict are at the center of the peace process.”

 

The JEP’s first year in review

Judicial Progress

The JEP has begun 5 major investigations focusing on the actions of FARC ex-combatants and the Colombian military. The cases focus on kidnappings by the FARC; violence in the departments of Tumaco, Ricaurte and Barbacoas, and Nariño; extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military (infamously known as “false positives”); crimes committed in the department of Antioquia’s sub-region of Urabá; and violence in the northern region of the Cauca department.

Over 800,000 victims have registered with the JEP in the past year, while 11,675 have agreed to appear before the tribunal. The vast majority of those agreeing to testify, 9,687, are ex-combatants of the FARC. The remaining number is composed of 1,938 members of Colombia’s Armed Forces, 38 state operatives unaffiliated with the Armed Forces, and 12 who have self-identified as social protesters. Two Colombian generals and one senator are the most notable public figures involved in the process.

 

Remaining Challenges

The JEP has navigated a highly politicized and controversial implementation of the peace agreement. About 15% of the JEP’s 51 magistrates come from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and over half of them are women. However, the Central Democratic Party (UD) founded by ex-president Álvaro Uribe has accused the JEP of carrying out a political agenda. While independently unsubstantiated, UD’s allegations have cast doubt on the JEP’s legitimacy.

The JEP has also faced criticism from the FARC, with high-profile cases involving two of the group’s former leaders. The first, known by his alias Jesús Santrich, has sought a JEP guarantee that he will not be extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges. The second FARC ex-commander, Hernán Darío Velásquez, or “Paisa,” has not appeared before the JEP. The tribunal has yet to decide whether his failure to participate exempts him from the benefits of the transitional justice system.

The JEP’s most critical tool lies in its popular legitimacy. María Camila Moreno, director of the Colombia program for the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), emphasized the importance of transparency and legitimacy. Presenting on the JEP’s first year of operation, Moreno called for greater resources for implementing the peace agreement in post-conflict zones and a greater focus on the conflict’s victims. The JEP, she warned, must serve as an example that Colombia’s conflicts can be solved by institutions instead of violence.

 

Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Intern

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Transitional Justice, Victims

January 23, 2019

Afro Descendants and Indigenous Defend Historic Peace Agreement

(First posted to World Policy Blog, October 19, 2016)

Mass demonstrations led by indigenous communities are taking place in Colombia’s capital of Bogotá in defense of the country’s historic peace accord. On Aug. 24, the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced an end to the 52-year brutal internal armed conflict that killed over 220,000 people and generated over 8 million victims. The world applauded when the peace accord was signed in the historic city of Cartagena on Sept. 26. Surprisingly, voters rejected the peace referendum by a narrow margin of less than 1 percent on Oct. 2. Multiple factors—Hurricane Mathew; a high level of abstention; an effective campaign by peace opponents to manipulate, misinform, and mislead voters into voting No; and overconfidence that the Yes vote was a given—led to this unfortunate outcome. Currently, Colombia’s peace with the FARC is in limbo with the parties attempting to salvage the peace process by trying to address concerns of the No voters.

Looking at a map of the votes, what is most evident is a tremendous difference of opinion between rural Colombians directly affected by the conflict and the mostly urban Colombians whose relationship with the war consists of viewing it on TV. Areas where conflict, violence, and displacement run rampant voted in favor of the peace accord, as did the majority of the zones where victims, indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians live. In other words, Afro-Colombians and indigenous, who make up a disproportionate number of the conflict’s victims, are the strongest proponents of the peace accord. Therefore, it is no surprise that they are now organizing to tell the world that Colombia should not delay implementation of the agreed-upon accord.

When the peace process began, ethnic minorities were not part of the agenda. The points to be negotiated included agrarian reform, political participation, victims, drugs, and verification/implementation of the agreement, but the process did not include these populations or consider their rights. When they realized this was the case, Afro-Colombian national and regional groups including territorial authorities, displaced people, women, youth, trade unionists, and religious sectors formed the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) in 2014. A year later, CONPA joined forces with major indigenous groups to speak with one voice as the Ethnic Commission for Peace and Defense of Territorial Rights.

The Ethnic Commission proceeded to run a global campaign to get their opinions heard at the peace table. After multiple advocacy efforts that gained support from the Obama administration, the U.S. Congress, and the U.N., on June 26-27 the parties to the negotiations held formal discussions with afro-descendant and indigenous representatives in Cuba. The outcome of this engagement was the inclusion of the “Ethnic Chapter” in the final peace accord. This Chapter includes principles applicable to the entire accord that guarantee that Afro-Colombians’ and indigenous peoples’ rights are safeguarded. It establishes a High Level Ethnic Commission to help guide implementation in a manner that guarantees their participation in the process. This is a historic achievement for a sector of Colombian society that is often excluded and acutely suffers from the legacies of colonialism and slavery.

In the post-referendum debates, former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, one of the leaders of the No campaign, flatly stated on national television that “Colombia is not an African tribe but a country of institutions” when asked for his opinion regarding the Ethnic Chapter. The Ethnic Commission is therefore taking to the streets and engaging in advocacy to guarantee that their ethnic rights victory does not get watered down by the parties who are trying to appease the opponents of peace and calm the turmoil they generated.

In another shocking twist, President Juan Manuel Santos was announced as the 2016 Nobel Prize winner and has stated that he will be donating the funds to the victims of the conflict, including Afro-Colombians who survived the horrific Bojayá massacre of 2002. Shortly after, he also revealed that formal peace talks between his government and the country’s second guerilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), will begin on Oct. 27 in Ecuador. While analysts project that the ELN will be more inclusive of civil society in its talks with the state, it will be necessary for all parties to ensure that ethnic minorities are involved in these discussions.

The international community must do its utmost to guarantee that the impasse in Colombia’s peace process is quickly overcome. Support for a speedy resolution on the FARC accord is required, as is political support for the complementary ELN peace process. It should not cave to those who wish to sabotage Colombia’s progress and deny victims and rural Colombians the right to live in peace. The United States, Colombia’s number one ally and donor, and fellow Latin American countries should send a clear message to the parties involved that the Ethnic Chapter is essential to constructing peace on the ground.

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Indigenous Communities

October 21, 2016

Integrating Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Rights

By Gimena Sanchez, WOLA Senior Associate

After more than 50 years the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are finally engaging in peace negotiations. Beyond the signing of a potential agreement, ensuring peace will require incorporating into the process those communities that have been the hardest hit during the conflict and where tensions can rise to violence during the post-conflict era. Precisely because indigenous and Afro-Colombian persons make up a disproportionate number of the victims and displaced communities of the conflict, their voices are especially essential for ensuring a just and lasting peace.

President Santos recently traveled to Washington and, alongside President Obama, announced that the United States and Colombia were entering a new era of relations. Yet President Santos’ large entourage at the White House did not include any Afro-Colombians, until U.S. officials noted their absence. At the last minute, the Colombian Embassy scrambled to invite Afro-Colombians residing in the United States to appear racially inclusive. This was contradictory to both countries’ priorities, considering that Colombia and the United States signed a ‘Racial Action Plan’ (CAPREE) to combat discrimination and promote human rights conditions in U.S. military aid.

In this context, last week President Juan Manuel Santos invited a handful of Afro-Colombian celebrities and personalities to the presidential residence, the Casa de Nariño. At this event, Santos announced that he was appointing Colombia’s first Afro-descendant Congresswoman, Zulia Mena, to the post of Vice Minister of Culture. The meeting at Casa Nariño included the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA), a respected coalition of ethno-territorial authorities, the displaced, women, and civil rights leaders. However, the meeting did nothing to address these communities’ request that they be invited to form an ethnic commission in Cuba to discuss real issues at stake in the peace process. These include the demobilization of guerilla fighters, reconciliation, victims’ rights, collective land rights, the needs of Afro-Colombian women, and the political participation of Afro-Colombians. Naming a leader with the caliber of experience and prominence of Zulia Mena to a post with little political influence does nothing to advance these issues.

In order to ensure the consolidation of peace in areas where these populations hold collective land titles, the parties to the conflict must sit down with the ethnic-territorial authorities before finalizing the peace agreement. These ethnic minorities have a constitutional right to be previously consulted on matters affecting their land. In addition to the legal, historical, moral, and reparative reasons to consult with these groups, there are practical realities to take into consideration. Due to inexistent or weak state presence, the ongoing presence of illegal armed groups, corruption and geographical isolation, these will be the areas where consolidating peace will be hardest. These are also areas, especially along the Pacific Coast and mountains of Cauca, where new conflicts are likely to arise in a post-conflict scenario and where the risk to peace is highest. Coordinated and well-planned efforts that fully include these leaders will be required for the accords to yield results. Bogota’s centralized, top-down approach to governance without real inclusion of the beneficiaries has failed in the past. This time Colombia should take advantage of the opportunities at hand and do things right.

Since 2014, organized ethnic minorities under the umbrella of CONPA and The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) have advocated for inclusion at the peace table. These organizations have stressed that despite the invitation of ethnic leaders to present their cases of victimization in Havana, a more collective-rights view on how to construct peace should be discussed with them. Colombia has ignored this plea by offering superficial meetings such as the one that took place last week.

Colombia may not be including ethnic minorities in the process, but these groupings have decided to include themselves. On March 8, these communities joined forces and launched a non-governmental ethnic commission on the peace process of their own.  The Ethnic Commission for Peace and the Defense of Territorial Rights, as it is called, will work to defend their collective territorial rights and address conflicts that may arise in post-conflict scenarios. It behooves both negotiating parties in Havana to listen to them, and make them active partners in the construction of peace and a sustainable post-conflict era.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Indigenous Communities

March 21, 2016